Politics of uncertainty 

Politics of uncertainty 

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Once again Pakistan’s politics has plunged into more uncertainty. Two recent developments have contributed to this. The first is opposition leader Imran Khan’s arrest following his conviction for ‘corrupt practices’ by a trial court. This sentenced him to three years in jail for failing to declare funds derived from selling state gifts in the ‘Toshakhana’ case. Khan’s lawyers plan to challenge the verdict handed down by a district sessions judge, but it is unclear how the legal process will play out. For now, Khan faces disqualification from politics for five years, which knocks him out from contesting the election.

This development has made the political atmosphere more charged even though Khan’s hopes of mass protests by his supporters against his arrest have not materialized. His party has obviously rejected the court ruling, describing it as full of loopholes. The ruling alliance for its part celebrated the judicial outcome calling it ‘retribution’ for Khan’s imperious conduct. 

The second development was the decision of the Council of Common Interests (CCI), a constitutional body, to endorse the recently completed digital census and call for upcoming elections to be held on the basis of the 2023 census. The Election Commission is now legally obliged under Article 51(5) of the Constitution to carry out fresh delimitation of electoral constituencies. This exercise could take four to six months. That in turn means a delay in general elections, which otherwise have to be called within the constitutionally stipulated period of 90 days once Parliament completes its term and is dissolved in the next few days. Any new demarcation of electoral constituencies will also require a constitutional amendment. This won’t be possible as the National Assembly will not be in existence. In the outgoing Lower House, the two-thirds majority needed for an amendment was in any case ruled out as Khan’s PTI members had resigned their seats last year, which left a truncated House. In light of this, it is unclear how the constitutional requirement will be met.

It will take more than an empowering law for effective economic management by the caretaker government which would need to strengthen and reinforce stabilization measures.

- Maleeha Lodhi

The CCI decision suggests that elections might even be delayed till spring next year. This raises the question of how long the caretaker arrangement would remain in place. If elections are postponed beyond November and the tenure of the caretaker government is prolonged it will not only be important for it to run a non-partisan administration but to also ably manage the economy, which remains in a critical condition. Its neutrality and non-controversial nature will be important to establish a fair environment for the polls and demonstrate that a level playing field is in place for the electoral contest.

The economy will need delicate and deft management in this period. The standby agreement with the IMF has helped Pakistan avert debt default, but it is a temporary reprieve that provides only limited breathing space. The short-term arrangement has momentarily restored some economic stability and confidence but the economy is hardly out of the woods. As important economic decisions may have to be taken in the interim phase, Parliament adopted legislation to empower the caretaker government to do this. The Elections (Second Amendment) Bill, 2023, which modified the Elections Act of 2017, gives new powers to caretaker governments to inter alia take major economic decisions and deal with “urgent matters” if deemed necessary. 

But it will take more than an empowering law for effective economic management by the caretaker government, which would need to strengthen and reinforce stabilization measures. The economy is witnessing a slew of negative trends, none of which are expected to be reversed in the months ahead. Internal and external financial imbalances remain wide, foreign exchange reserves are fragile despite injections of funds from the IMF and friendly countries, inflation is at a historic high, domestic and foreign debt have reached unsustainable levels, the rupee has lost record value against the dollar, exports have fallen, overseas remittances are declining and foreign direct investment has plunged to a new low. Financing requirements to meet external debt obligations are an estimated $25 billion this fiscal year. This will necessitate mobilizing additional funds, a task that a longer-duration interim government would have to undertake.

The principal task of the interim government will of course be to supervise free and fair elections. Although Khan has been barred from taking part, his Tehreek-e-Insaf party will still be in the electoral contest. With Khan in jail, the leadership of the party has been assumed by the vice chairman Shah Mahmud Qureshi. Despite the exodus of several former PTI ministers and lawmakers, the rest of the party is still largely intact although under pressure from coercive actions directed against it by the outgoing government. Against this fraught backdrop, the caretaker administration will have the challenging task of ensuring the elections are seen as credible and legitimate. The country’s political stability rests critically on whether the election is judged as free and fair by the people.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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